China’s Elderly influencers on TikTok: It’s never too late to try the web

Starting in 2018, many elderly influencers have attracted attentions on TikTok, which has promoted the development of the silver economy. As an emerging form of social media, can the content on the short video platform meet the needs of the elderly?

Wearing a fluorescent green T-shirt, a waist bag and shoes with streetwear logos, black sunglasses and a fisherman hat, he held a cup of coffee in his hand. Joe is 83-year-old, but his outfit looks like an Instagram blogger in his twenties.

Joe lives in Wuhan and was a university teacher before retirement, teaching Internet and communication technology. He is keen on buying street fashion clothing, and his dressing style is even more trendy than many young people in their 20s. Joe has considered himself as one of the many street fashion enthusiasts until his short videos went viral showing the daily lives of him and his grandson. With Joe’s stylish outlook and humorous personality, this account called “KangKang and grandpa” has attracted more than 550,000 followers.

The overnight fame of the elderly

Like Joe, more and more elderly people are becoming active on social media, and they are called “granfluencers”. The “granfluencer” first appeared in an article on BBC Three called “The rise of the ‘granfluencer’”, and it refers to “grandparents or simply older people who are better at social media than you”. This phenomenon is most obvious in TikTok, a short video sharing platform known as Douyin in China.

Joe, a “granfluencer” on TikTok. Source: TikTok

From the data point of view, it is a trend for middle-aged and older adults to be active on short video platforms. According to a report of the China Netcasting Services Association, in the second half of 2018, the utilization rate of short video applications by users aged 50 and above rose from 54.5% to 66.7%. And from the perspective of age composition, the proportion of users over 50 increased from 6.5% to 11%. In contrast, younger age groups show a downward trend.

Kangkang is Joe’s grandson. When he was a child, he lived under his grandfather’s company and care. Later, Kangkang left home to study and work in other cities. Although they often contact each other, there are few opportunities to meet. As Joe gets older and older, KangKang quitted his job in 2019 and decided to return to Wuhan to accompany his grandfather.

Their first video was a sitcom, released in September 2019, when KangKang just returned to Wuhan.

“This is a frequently occurring scene. Usually, my grandpa would pick me up at the airport or at the station, and he would wear clothes with street fashion styles. I often fail to recognize him. We thought this subject was quite interesting and we discussed to restore this scene and make it a short video,” says Kangkang.

Surprisingly, this video quickly went viral, receiving more than 1.8 million likes and being shared more than 30,000 times. From then on, when they encountered something interesting in their lives, they made short videos and posted them on TikTok.

“We don’t have a script, and we don’t think about the content deliberately. I think life itself is a wonderful drama,” says Joe.

Bridging the Generation Gap

Fengnian Yang is an operations manager in a Multi-Channel Network (MCN) company, engaged in influencer marketing. According to him, although the participants in these short videos are elderly people, the audience is mainly young people.

“Most of these videos show the lives of the elderly from the perspective of young people. Many of the younger generations grew up in the company of grandparents. These videos can resonate with them,” explains Fengnian.

In terms of Joe and Kangkang, their getting along like friends has attracted the attention of young people.

“Young people rarely have the opportunity to get along with their grandparents when they grow up, and sometimes there exists the generation gap. I think the way I get along with my grandfather will make everyone feel novel and feel that ‘I have never seen it before’,” says KangKang.

The popularity of granfluencers has allowed people realize that the lives of the elderly can be rich and colorful.

Chao Zhou is a researcher at Age Club, a consulting firm focusing on the elderly industry in China. He believes that granfluencers break the society’s stereotype of the elderly.

“Some people regard the elderly as conservative and outdated, but some of these elderly wear cheongsams or in suits, and some go to the forest or desert to travel. The positive outlook and attitude of them give people a contrast and give young people an incentive,” says Chao.

The positive outlook of elderly influencers

Monetising the popularity

At the same time, many MCN companies have also seen business opportunities and try to monetize their popularity. After Joe became popular, some companies wanted to sign a brokerage contract with him, and some companies invited him to shoot sitcoms as an actor. Joe had some interests, but KangKang refused these invitations.

“We don’t want to become commercial,” says KangKang, “Although my grandpa is in good physical and mental health, he is in old age. I don’t want him to film a lot of videos, that would be too tiring.”

65-year-old Wei Lin is a member of a group “Glam-mas” (glamorous grandmas). Four elderly women with an average age of 68 have become popular with a video of walking catwalks in a Beijing’s fashionable district wearing traditional cheongsam. This 15-second video was released in June 2019 and received 2.7 million likes. They worked as content creators and chose not to sign with the MCN company.

Wei said to China Newsweek that the contract requirements, such as the number of videos to be shot per week, and the length of the working hours are beyond their age. The elderly may have physical problems at any time, and the risk of compensation is too high.

Like Joe and Wei Lin, only a few granfluencers plan and shoot videos by themselves or with their families. Most of the accounts of granfluencers are operated by professional MCN companies.

According to Age Club, compared with individual content creators, the short videos of the granfluencers operated by MCN have better quality, richer visual effects, and their contents are easier to maintain a high standard.

The Elderly in China.

72-year-old Xiaoping Liu has an exquisite appearance. After becoming popular, she was signed by an MCN company. The company filmed a variety of videos for her, which she enjoyed very much. But the biggest problem she faces is not being able to control her working hours. She told China Newsweek that she could shoot continuously for more than 10 hours a day during the busiest period and could only finish work and go home in the middle of the night.

This has caused some controversies in society, thinking that the elderly are regarded as cash cows and their children to make money by consuming family affection.

Joe and KangKang have seen such negative comments. KangKang felt sad at the time because he was not shooting short videos to make money. It’s just out of personal interest, recording the happy time with his grandpa through the TikTok platform.

Joe didn’t care much. He says, “Everyone thinks differently, so don’t worry too much about these negative comments. These are very few, and most people quite like our works.”

Fengnian believes that this is an era of national entertainment. Young people have the opportunity to use TikTok’s platform to gain popularity or make money, so do the elderly.

The potential of elderly netizens

Surfing the Internet together with young people, the elderly are potential users and content creators of short video platforms. According to the 2019 China Internet Audiovisual Development Research Report, from the perspective of the age composition of users of short video apps, the proportion of users over 50 has risen from 6.5% to 11%, while users under the age of 20, 20-29, and 30-39 all show a downward trend. It shows that middle-aged and elderly users are becoming the main incremental group of short video platforms.

An important reason why TikTok has become popular among the elderly is that it presents content in the form of videos.

“The elderly use WeChat and other social media mainly by reading, while the video is a form of audio and video synchronization, which is more convenient for the elderly to understand,” says Chao.

In addition, it’s worth thinking about whether the content on these platforms can meet the needs of the elderly. Chao Zhou and his team used WeChat as an example to research the content needs of the elderly on the Internet. He believes that there are four main categories.

The first category is knowledge about health and wellness, and the second category is articles with a sense of time, such as the stories of movie stars and singers in the 1970s and 1980s. The third category is related to Chinese traditional culture. The last one is the news, including local news and international affairs.

According to Chao, for now, WeChat has a mature development in content, and there are a great number of accounts dedicated to elderly users. However, short video platforms such as TikTok and Kuaishou have much less content in the above areas.

TikTok, known as Douyin in China. Source: Sohu

Most content creators would like to target large user groups, which means younger generations.

“Creators choose relatively young user groups, the content is easier to become popular, followers grow faster, and it is easier to receive commercial cooperation,” says Chao.

When content creators on WeChat started their business around 2015, they faced many doubts that elderly people would not use social media. But after they seized the opportunity, they found that the elderly users were growing very fast. Chao believes that this trend is likely to reappear in TikTok.

Fengnian Yang believes that the page and software design of short video platforms is not friendly enough for the elderly. He suggested that those platforms can introduce an “elderly mode”, which means making some adjustments based on the elderly’s visual and auditory physiological conditions.

In May 2019, under the guidance of China’s National Internet Information Office, many video software launched the youth mode. This “anti-addiction system” has made some adjustments in the content push and use time. Kuaishou is a fast-growing Chinese short video app, and it had acquired 200 million active daily users by 2019, according to South China Morning Post. Take it as an example. After entering the youth mode, Kuaishou presents selected content exclusively for teenagers. They cannot do live streams and conduct rewards, recharges, and withdrawals. Teenagers are not allowed to use Kuaishou for more than 40 minutes each day, and they are forbidden to use it from 22:00 to 6:00. TikTok’s youth model adopts a similar strategy.

“Like the youth mode, if there is an elderly mode, the font and screen will be larger, and the music will be louder when it is turned on. I think this will improve the user experience of the elderly,” says Fengnian.

In order to better meet the needs of the elderly for short video platforms, it is necessary to encourage more senior citizens to become content creators.

“Some platforms organize regular training for content creators,” explains Fengnian, “They can give the elderly more guidance and support them to create and participate in short videos, instead of planning by professional directors and screenwriters.”

He believes that this will allow elderly users to “get closer” to short video platforms.

Silver Economy

Fengnian explained that many elderly people are rich in time and money after retirement, and their increased use of the Internet and social media reflects the potential of the silver economy. According to an article by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the silver economy is the market for goods and services for people aged 65 and over. Although the population ageing has had a negative impact on the society, it has brought business opportunities to the consumer market for the elderly. According to the “Report on the Development of Actively Responding to Population Aging in the New Era·2018”, the consumption level of the elderly in China shows a trend of gradual increase over time. The elderly consumer market will become an important pillar industry for economic development.

Age Club analysed that the main opportunities in China’s elderly consumer market come from cultural entertainment and e-commerce. The shopping habits of the elderly have gradually shifted to online e-commerce platforms. The short video platform has great potential in these two aspects.

Chao Zhou is optimistic about the prospects of the silver economy.

He says, “People born in the 1960s and 1970s are about to retire, and their consumption concepts are more advanced than their previous generation. If their consumer demand is guided, it will greatly promote the development of the silver economy.”

Social media has brought many opportunities to people. Some people enjoyed the overnight fame and their lives changed. For these elderly people who have become Internet celebrities, they enjoy the life value brought by their new identity. Joe has gained many fans on TikTok who are the same age as his grandson. When some of them were confused with their lives or frustrated in relationships, he would give heartfelt replies and encourage them to live optimistically.

“I am willing to discuss some fashionable things with young people, and often forget my age,”says Joe, “keep pace with society, and I will stay young.”

(According to the interviewees’ request, Joe and KangKang are assume names.)